Beckett: Sermon – Believing with Doubt

Date: September 12, 2021
Festival: Pentecost 16 (Zion Homecoming)
Text: Mark 9:14-29
Occasion: Zion Lutheran Church, Mt. Pleasant, MI

Let us pray: “Almighty God, our creator and guide, may we serve you with all our heart and know your forgiveness in our lives. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen” [For All the Saints, 817].

Introduction

Many commentaries and other church literature have spilled much ink on thousands of pages on Mark 9, the disciples’ failure to exercise this demon from the boy, what Jesus meant that this kind of demon can only be exercised through prayer, and what this means for you and me. They’ve done this with good reason. But I want to focus on something else. I want us to consider the father’s personal experience. Sometimes, we think of people like him simply as characters in a story; we treat them like they’re supportive roles in a story of fiction or NPCs—non-playable characters—in a video game. But no, this man was a real person.

Like you and me, he lived, he worked, he suffered, and he had a family. This man had to suffer with feeling helpless as his son was being torn apart by a demon for who knows how many years? Imagine feeling helpless while your child suffers immensely. Perhaps some of you have. So then, let’s consider this man’s story, and as we do so, I will attempt to bring his story to life through a first-person narrative…

A Father’s Story

For what seems like the millionth time, my son suddenly starts convulsing, thrashing about on the floor so violently that he casts himself into the fire—again—that’s supposed to be keeping us warm tonight. I can’t do anything to help my boy. The only thing I can do is grab him out from the fire and hold onto him tightly while he thrashes about uncontrollably, even though I get severely burnt myself and many scratches and bruises from his violent convulsing. That’s all I can do—to hold on helplessly to my afflicted son. What kind of father can’t help his own son?

Then I remembered I heard rumour of some followers of a great Rabbi who’ve been going around healing people and even casting out demons like those that possess my boy. I’ve heard stories how this Rabbi fed 5,000 men, then 4,000 more and all their families—so, more than 10,000 people—with only a little bit of bread and fish! “Impossible!” I thought. “How can a man do such a thing?” But all these people swear it happened.

I heard also how this Rabbi recently healed a blind man at Bethsaida, and how He’s also healed the deaf, the sick, and cast out demons Himself in the Gerasenes. If He can cast out a demon from such an unclean Gentile, surely, He can do the same for a Jewish father’s son? Surely His disciples can do the same? Why not try? It couldn’t hurt. In fact, they just happen to be in town.

Desperate, I grab my son’s hand and take him to the Rabbi’s disciples. I tell them everything about my son’s affliction and plead with them to send the demon away. They say some words over my son, and thinking him free from his affliction, he begins convulsing on the ground again. I grab him like the countless times I’ve done before and hold him helplessly while he thrashes about, gives me another black eye, and kicks up dirt in my mouth. But I keep holding on; it’s the least I can do to keep the demon from killing my boy.

Then everyone starts arguing about why it didn’t work. The commotion was so loud that I couldn’t tell what they were arguing about. Perhaps why the exorcism didn’t work? Perhaps why the disciples are false teachers since their attempt clearly failed? Perhaps that my son is paying for his sins, maybe even for the sins of his own father? As I hold on to my boy while everyone is arguing about nothing, that’s when I see Him: The Rabbi. He appeared with three other disciples, as if from a journey.

With a voice of authority, He says to everyone, “What are you arguing about with them?” Nobody answered. So, I speak up and say with the best I could gather, “Teacher, I brought my son to You, because he has a spirit that makes him mute. And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So, I asked Your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t.”

Just then, I see disappointment in His face—not at me, but at everyone else. He looks to His disciples who failed, to the quarrelsome scribes, and everybody else and He laments, “O faithless generation! How long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” Then He looks to me. Suddenly, His face is changed to a look I’ve never seen on a man before. He looks at me not with disappointment or anger, but with compassion. And He says, “Bring him to Me.”

So, I stand up and others help me bring my boy carefully to the Rabbi. As soon as my son laid eyes on Him, it’s as if the demon inside him knew exactly who it was looking at, for immediately my son began to convulse on the ground again, foaming at the mouth. Once again, I drop to my knees to hold my son, and the Rabbi asks, “How long has this been happening to him?”

I answered, “Since childhood! And it has often cast him into fire and water to destroy him.” Then I looked up at Him desperately, “But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us!”

The Rabbi almost laughed. “‘If you can?'” He said sarcastically. “All things are possible for one who believes.” Yes, I believe… but I’m doubtful. Oh Lord, what can I do? I’m too weak! So, in my mortifying weakness, I cry out to Him, “I believe; help my unbelief!” And He answered me. He answered me by speaking to the demon, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again!”

Just then my son—no, the demon—cried out with a loud voice and violently came out of my son… And he laid there for a while, as if he were dead. In fact, the crowd started to say, “He is dead,” but then the Rabbi took him by the hand, lifted him up, and there stood my son—totally free, well, and alive. As I turned to thank the Rabbi, He had already left with His disciples…

Sharing in the Father’s Doubting Faith

This father, whomever he was, faced the question we still ask ourselves today: What authority does Jesus really have? To put it another way, Can Jesus help me or not? As his son twists and thrashes on the ground, Jesus’ question comes across in what might appear to be an apathetic doctor’s tone, “How long has this been happening to him?” And the father answers his question and then begs Him, “If You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us!” Clearly, the father had his doubts about Jesus. After all, His own disciples couldn’t help, so can their own Teacher—the very source of their authority—be of any help? And Jesus rebukes him in a sarcastic tone, “‘If you can?'” as if to say, “Of course I can!”

Jesus is calling the father—and those who read this Gospel—to a bold trust in Him. Remove your blinders and put on the lenses where the only thing in focus is Jesus. All this father knew was failure—his own failure and inability to help his son and the disciples’ failure to help his son. In the face of all this failure and doubt, Jesus calls him to doubt his doubt and to trust completely and utterly in Him alone. He can’t, of course; the blinders are too thick. He believes Jesus’ words, but the doubts are too thick. So, in complete desperation, he cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” These are the words I want us to consider this morning.

Many Christians will tell you to keep praying until your faith is “strong enough” to get what you want, but that’s not what the father does here. Instead, he confesses his utter weakness and inability and asks that his son be healed anyway. And Jesus does exactly that—despite this man’s doubting faith, Jesus commands the demon to leave the boy and never return, and it obeyed. It had no choice. The father found out that anything is indeed possible with Jesus.

So, what authority does Jesus really have? All of it. There’s a reason why Jesus said to His disciples just before He ascended, “All authority in Heaven and on Earth has been given to Me” [Matthew 28:18], and then He gave them authority to make disciples of all nations by baptising them in the Triune name of God and teaching them about Jesus. Jesus has all authority—no ifs, ands, or buts. With Jesus, there is no, “If You are able.” There is only, “It is possible.”

Yet we are faced with another dilemma. We’re a long way away from Jesus’ times; He no longer walks among us as He did in His earthly ministry. So, the question we’re left asking ourselves is, “Can Jesus help me or not? Does He still have authority over what afflicts me, and will He exercise His authority for my favour?” As Christians, we know He can—we believe He can. But alas, we doubt. Thus, we cry out with the father, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” How does Jesus help you today in the midst of your doubts?

Remember that as your pastor, I am here on the authority of the resurrected Jesus, who is ascended to the right hand of the Father. And you’re blessed to have two of these men—two pastors to whom you can go to hear Jesus speak His authority over you for your favour! As you heard Pastor Bakker speak during the Absolution this morning, as your pastors we come and speak by His stead and command—not our own, but the authority of Jesus. And He has given us authority to forgive your sins, to baptise you in the name of the Triune God, and to give you His body and blood in the Holy Eucharist for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

In these sacraments, you hear, feel, and even taste Christ’s authority for your favour. Whether you hear Christ’s words of Absolution, or remember what He did in your Baptism, or receive His body and blood in His Supper here at church, what you receive is Christ’s own authority to forgive you your sins and grant you life and salvation, even when you doubt. The boy’s father believed, but he was filled with doubt. Yet Jesus spoke His Word and released the boy despite the father’s crisis of faith.

Jesus does the same for you today. Your doubts, your sins—your doubting faith—cannot separate you from Christ and His authority to do what He came to this Earth to do, which is to forgive you your sins and give you His salvation. In the face of doubt, you hear Christ’s words of forgiveness with your very own ears; you were washed in His cleansing waters of Baptism, and you see it with your own eyes every time a baby is baptised here; and you touch with your own fingers and taste with your own tongue the forgiveness of Christ, and it is sweet. Nothing gets more real than that.

Remember, Christ did send out His disciples with His authority to heal and to exercise demons, even though they failed in this instance because they apparently weren’t in prayer. Christ hasn’t given me authority to heal, but He has given me authority to forgive your sins in Absolution, whether that be publicly like we all did at the beginning of the service, or privately in either of our offices. He has also given Pastor Bakker and I authority to baptise you and to give you His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. It is not me or Pastor Bakker that makes these sacraments effective, but the very Word of God—that same Word of God that created the entire universe and you simply by speaking. So, Bienvenidos. Tervetuloa. Welcome. Welcome home to Zion, where you receive this same spoken Word that, when you hear the words, “I forgive you” from your pastor, it is so, no matter what; for our doubts and feelings are not powerful enough to undo the Word of God that makes all things new and out of nothing, thanks be to God.

Let us pray: O Christ, Thou Incarnate Word of God through whom all things were created, grant us strength and courage when our faith is weak. Lead us to trust in Thy Word of forgiveness when the blinders of doubt are too thick for us to see past, that we may rest assured that Thy efficacious Word does what Thou sayest in spite of ourselves; for Thou live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Bibliography

Schumacher, Frederick J. and Dorothy A. Zelenko. For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church. Volume IV: Year 2, The Season After Pentecost. Delhi, NY: The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1998.

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